I was hyped for the Hulu broadcast of Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself before it premiered, because people on Twitter — not just “people,” but artists I really respect — were breathlessly describing it as a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The consensus was that it was breathtaking, and that you should watch it knowing nothing about it going in.
I’d agree with the first part, but I’d actually recommend knowing at least enough about it to keep expectations in check. My take is that it’s very good; I was openly sobbing through much of it, and that’s only about 25% because I’m extremely prone to sympathetic crying. The rest is because it’s a genuinely impressive production.
Still, I feel like it would’ve resonated with me even more if my expectations hadn’t been raised so impossibly high by the buzz around it. So I’d actually recommend going in with a reductionist idea of what it is: an ingenious combination of one-man play and stage magic show.
The one aspect I’m most impressed with is how it’s presented, so that it’s practically impossible to be too cynical to appreciate it. It’s a series of feats of stage magic that are telling you, in every moment of the show, including the title of the show, that the “tricks” aren’t the point.
To explain why would definitely be a spoiler, though, so please don’t read the rest of this post until after you’ve seen it.
I know almost nothing about magic, apart from what I remember from seeing The Prestige that one time. I do have a vague impression that the fundamentals to a successful magic trick1Sorry, hookers do tricks. Illusions. are similar to the fundamentals of a successful con: the best misdirect you can do is first drawing attention to how misdirects work.
Convince the audience that you’re showing them a behind-the-scenes look at how the trick works — or even just remind them that it is a trick — so that their attention is looking for the misdirects you’ve told them to look for, instead of the ones you’re about to pull off.
I have a vague idea of the mundane ways that DelGaudio managed to achieve the two most impressive moments in the show (the finale, and the letter to an audience member). To be clear, I don’t think I’ve got a particularly insightful take on it; it’s most likely the explanation that’s I’m supposed to come up with. It feels like the explanation designed to satisfy the majority of the audience, between the ones who shout “he’s a demon!” and flee the theater, and the ones who enjoy the show so much as theater that they don’t even care about it as a magic show.
It’s also an explanation that’s just enough to satisfy my curiosity, so that I’m not tempted to think too hard about all the details. Coincidentally, it reminds me of a scene from a recent episode of WandaVision, in which she tries to convince a crowd that super powers are nothing more than stage magic by “accidentally” showing them a bunch of mirrors. It’s enough to satisfy everyone in the audience except for the one person who asks, “Is that how mirrors work?”
So DelGaudio spends a chunk of the show demonstrating how much he practiced card magic, over and over again, until he was adept enough to bring any card he wanted to the top of the deck of a seemingly random shuffle. But then he picks a seemingly random audience member from a stack, and a seemingly random letter from a different stack, and brings the audience member to tears (along with some of us at home) when it contains a personal letter. She says simply, “I don’t understand.”
And it’s a moment that works whether you don’t understand, or you think you understand, because you were watching his hands and thinking about how he’s manipulating the draw of the cards and letters, and while you may not quite have figured out how they came into possession of a surprisingly personal letter attached to someone in the audience, you’ve got enough of it figured out to be satisfied. Whether you’re over-thinking or not thinking at all, neither matters, because the moment itself is a completely gratuitous and wonderfully unexpected moment of pure kindness.
The finale is also set up from the first moment of the show, building anticipation as it slowly takes shape as the life-or-death stunt he insists on pulling, night after night. The magic of it is that even my most mundane explanation of it would still be a remarkable feat of coordination from the stage crew, and memorization on DelGaudio’s part.
And again, it’s almost irrelevant what the “trick” of the finale actually is, because the show is structured so that he’s breaking down the layers of mis-direction and second-guessing that have built up around stage magic over the centuries, and getting back to the original idea of “magic:” a moment of human kindness extended to each member of the audience, letting them experience the illusion that another human being can really see them as they want to be seen.